Copyright 2013 by Stephen
Use paragraphs for four Cs:
clarity, coherence, control, & credibility
by Stephen Wilbers
I do love my iPhone. I do love my computer. I do love the
I love their power and speed and instantaneous access to
information. I love the things they do for me. I love the way
they guide me to my destination, highlight my errors, and
suggest alternative word choices. I love the way they let my
father see his only great grandchild and hear her sweet
newborn sounds six weeks before he died.
I do hereby profess my affection for – and near total
dependence on – these devices and technologies. I make this
declaration so that you won’t think me a Luddite for writing
another column on how these technologies may be undermining
your ability to communicate.
But, in fact, they may be.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with quick, short
communication, no more than it’s wrong to occasionally use a
one-sentence paragraph to create emphasis (as I did with the
previous paragraph). Texting is concise and to the point, and
dropping in a one-sentence paragraph varies the pace. But if
all you ever write are quick, disjointed messages and
one-sentence paragraphs, you may be losing your ability to
organize your thought into longer, logically developed
arguments. You may be losing your ability to think deeply.
Carefully structured paragraphs are the building blocks of
writing. They give us the four Cs of effective communication:
clarity, coherence, control, and credibility.
If you want the reader to follow your thought, you need to do
three things: Tell the reader where you’re going, present your
information or explain your thinking, and offer your
conclusion. In brief exchanges, with the context established,
this three-part structure may not be needed, but for more
substantive, deliberate, thoughtful writing, it’s essential.
The three-part paragraph provides a roadmap: topic,
Paragraphs help you connect your thoughts. A paragraph may
contain a number of points, but every point is linked to a
unifying theme and every sentence supports the main purpose.
After you have drafted your document, you can check its
organization by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.
Have you created a logical progression? Have you repeated
yourself? Have you omitted a key point?
These building blocks of composition help you set your pace
and control your emphasis. Shorter paragraphs create a faster
pace and a less formal style. Longer paragraphs create a
slower pace and a more formal style. Because first and last
sentences have natural prominence, key points go there.
Quotations normally work best in these locations. In legal
writing, positive information is presented first and last;
negative information is buried in the middle.
Credibility results from multiple factors: command of
language, knowledge of subject, rapport with audience, word
choice, sentence structure, and – perhaps surprisingly –
paragraphing. To write in paragraphs is to demonstrate how
your mind works. When the Declaration of Independence or the
Gettysburg Address is rendered in PowerPoint, their power is
lost. Outline format presents information but fails to convey
an essential element: quality of mind, sometimes called
“voice” in writing.
Write in sentences, but think in paragraphs.
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